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The House - An Episode in the Lives of Reuben Baker, Astronomer, and of His Wife, Alice
by Eugene Field
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Alice and I agreed with Mrs. Denslow (as we generally do), and our determination was confirmed when we subsequently learned, upon inquiry of Mr. Krome, the painter, that white paint was as expensive a paint as could be selected. It was our desire, in our choice of paint, to do nothing likely to lessen or to detract from the lustre of the princeliness of Mr. Rock's liberality. Mr. Rock had set no limitations to his munificence; far be it from us to do that which might be construed wrongfully as inappreciation of that munificence. It was the part of friendship to premise that Mr. Rock's intentions were large, and then it behooved us to see that those intentions were carried out upon a scale of equal scope. We decided, therefore, that the paint should be white, and that it should be carriage paint.

Uncle Si had advised us to have plenty of light and air admitted to "the addition" by means of numerous windows. According to the rude plan he submitted for Alice's approval, "the addition" when completed would have looked like a collection of windows of every size and shape. This was before Mr. Rock offered to paint the house. After Mr. Rock's proposal was made to and accepted by us it occurred to us that it would result in a considerable saving to us if we were to limit the number of windows and devote the space (thus economized) to clapboarding. This would involve a larger expense upon Mr. Rock's part, but it could not be denied that Mr. Rock could better afford paying for paint than we could afford paying for window frames and glass.

I think it likely that I should have called on Mr. Rock to learn his preference in the matter had the "every other Thursday" been nearer at hand. But Mr. Krome, the painter, and Uncle Si, the boss carpenter, required a speedy decision, and so we went ahead without consulting our munificent friend. Mr. Krome thereupon volunteered to do our painting by the square yard, instead of by the square foot (as is the customary proceeding); he admitted, with a candor rarely met with in his profession, he could as well afford to do our house in white carriage paint by the square yard as other rival painters could afford to do it in common white lead by the square foot. I assured Mr. Krome of my determination to spare no pains to cooeperate with him in every honest and ambitious endeavor at Mr. Rock's expense.

So now, the widow Schmittheimer having vacated the premises, the work of rehabilitation began in earnest. Men with wheelbarrows and spades and picks made their appearance and started in to demolish walls and to excavate sand at a marvelous rate. Presently a cavernous space yawned where it was proposed to locate the cellar where the steam-heating apparatus was to stand. The sand taken from this spot was harrowed out and dumped in a pile over the horse-radish bed in the back yard.

This was the first piece of vandalism I noticed, and I protested against it. Not long thereafter I discovered that the workmen engaged at battering down the partitions in the upper part of the house were piling up the refuse scantling and laths on the currant and gooseberry bushes in the side yard. I protested again, and so I kept on protesting, for hardly a day passed that I did not detect the workmen about that house at some piece of lawlessness jeoparding the cherry trees, or the lilac bushes, or the tulips, or the roses, or the peonies, or the asparagus bed.

Cui bono—to what good? With as much effect might the wild man of Borneo rail at Capella because her silvery, twinkling light is seventy-one years in reaching this distant planet.

I am unalterably opposed to the wanton destruction of life. Moreover, it seems to me that the trees, the shrubbery, the vines and the flowers on the Schmittheimer place have certain rights which the invaders ought to respect. At any rate, I spent the better part of two days transplanting a number of the currant and gooseberry bushes, and although I had a stiff neck and a very lame back for a considerable time thereafter I felt more than compensated therefor by the conviction that I had saved the lives of friends who would duly give me practical proof of their gratitude.

There were certain acts of lawlessness that I could neither prevent nor repair. One grieved me particularly. The plumber hitched his horse to a tree in the front yard one morning, and, before the damage he had done was discovered, the herbivorous beast had eaten up a white lilac bush and a snowball bush, thus completing a destruction for which there would seem to be no compensation. Upon another occasion a stray cow invaded the premises and laid waste the tulip bed and chewed off the tender buds on the choicest of the rose bushes.

But the most extensive and the most hideous depredations were committed by human beings under pretext of necessity and of interest in my behalf. I refer now to those remorseless men who came first and tore up the beautiful lawn and cut away the roots of trees and digged a deep, long pit in which to lay sewer pipes; who came again and committed another similar atrocity under plea of laying a water-pipe; who came still again and for the third time abused and seared and seamed and blighted that lawn for the alleged purpose of laying a gas-pipe! O civilization! what crimes are committed in thy name!

These experiences sobered and saddened me to a degree that was strangely new to me. At times I felt embittered against all the world. But as there is no cloud that has not its silver lining, so there were pleasant little happenings which ever and anon seemed to relieve my despondency. On one occasion Uncle Si said to me cheerily: "We 're going to have good luck from this time on." "What do you mean?" I asked. "Come along with me and see for yourself," said he.

Uncle Si led the way into the house and down into the basement. He pointed to an old valise that, spread open, lay under the stairs amid the debris which the masons had left.

"That 's what I mean," said Uncle Si, "and it brings good luck every time!"

I saw that the old and abandoned valise contained a tabby cat at whose generous dugs six wee kittens were tugging industriously. The widow Schmittheimer had left her home and gone elsewhere, but faithful tabby remained behind, true to that instinct which makes the feline unalterably loyal to locality.

I never before liked cats; I have always positively disliked them because they kill birds. Yet, do you know, I actually felt my heart go out in tenderness to this particular mother tabby and her mewing kits. It occurred to me, as she lay there, blinking and purring in apparent amiability and in evident pride, that here at least was a cat that would not kill birds; if so, I would adopt her, and as for the kittens—yes, I would adopt them, too.

I made up my mind that I would name the kittens after my most intimate neighbors; one should be Baylor, another Tiltman, another Rush, a fourth Denslow, the fifth Browe, and the sixth Roth. I am sorry there are not two more, for I should like to honor my two munificent patrons, Mr. Black and Mr. Rock. But there must be a limit to human possibilities. As for the mother cat herself, there was but one thing for me to do; I had to name her Alice, of course.



IX

NEIGHBOR MACLEOD'S THISTLE

The incident of the tabby cat's appearance with six kittens may have been a portent either of good or of evil. As you know, I am not a superstitious person. I smile at those whimsical fancies which figure so conspicuously in many people's lives, such as the howling of dogs, the flickering of a candle, the arrangement of the grounds in a cup, the cracking of a mirror, the sudden stopping of the clock, the crowing of hens, the chirping of crickets, the hooting of an owl, the fall of a family portrait, the spilling of salt, a dream of the toothache, etc., etc., etc. If this particular cat had been black instead of tabby I should have regarded her advent as a prognostic, for it is conceded by all scientists that there is a mysteriously subtle virtue in a black cat.

The fact, however, that she was tabby dispossessed her of all power either for evil or for good, and I could not help regarding Uncle Si with pity for the seeming veneration in which he held this harmless and innocent beast. Still I determined to watch and note events with a view to confuting the superstition which foresaw good luck in the presence of this cat and her offspring.

While the work of rehabilitating the old house was at its height I received a letter from my friend Byron Tinkle of Kansas City, congratulating me upon having secured so lovely a home after so many years of patient waiting. "And now," said he, "I am anxious to be represented by some bit of furniture in your new place. It has occurred to me that a handsome library table might be acceptable, and it would certainly delight me to present you with an object which would serve to remind you of your old schoolmate, whose affection for you has been abated neither by separation nor by the lapse of time."

Mr. Tinkle then went on to say that he had hit upon a very appropriate design for a library table—a design full of historical and mythological allusion. Four figures of Atlas supporting the world were to serve as the legs of this table, and around the sides of the top were to be carved scenes illustrative of the progress of civilization since the building of Solomon's temple. Upon the four edges of the top were to be inlaid mosaic portraits of the most famous scientists, including Aesculapius, Moses, Galileo, Darwin, Herschel, Mitchell, Huxley, Harvey, Jenner, etc., and the top itself was to represent a cunningly devised map of the world, in which my native town of Biddeford, Maine, was to appear as the central and most conspicuous figure.

I felt very grateful to my old friend Tinkle for his generosity, but I said nothing of it to Alice. Recalling the experience with Colonel Mullaly's yellow lamp, I suspected that if Alice were to hear of this promised addition to our furniture she would surely change the whole architectural scheme of our new home in order to adapt it to the new centre table.

Mr. Tinkle's princely offer was but the beginning of a series of handsome and useful gifts. It seemed as if our friends no sooner heard of our purchase of a home than they became possessed of a desire to contribute toward embellishing that home. Another Kansas City friend, Colonel Gustave Gerton, late of the Bavarian Guards, telegraphed me that a dozen young apple trees, carefully picked from his Nonpareil Nursery, awaited my order. The Janowins, who have a prosperous farm in Kentucky, duly apprised us that when we were ready to stock our place they would send us a heifer and a litter of pigs. Cousin Jabez Fothergill forwarded to us all the way from Maine a box which was found to contain a pint of Hubbard squash seeds, a dozen daffodil sprouts, and a goodly collection of catnip roots. Offers of dogs came from numerous quarters—dogs representing the mastiff, bloodhound, Newfoundland, beagle, setter, pointer, St. Bernard, terrier, bull, Spitz, dachshund, spaniel, colly, pug, and poodle families. Had we contemplated a perennial bench show, instead of a quiet home, we could hardly have been more favored. With a discretion begotten of twenty years' experience as a husband, I referred all these proffers of canine gifts to Alice with power to act, and I dimly surmise that consideration of them has been postponed indefinitely.

As soon as our neighbors realized what horticultural possibilities our noble expanse of front yard offered they fairly overwhelmed us with floral and arboreal gifts. During that unusually warm spell we had about two months ago there was scarcely an hour of the day that a wheelbarrow or a man servant or both did not arrive bearing lilac sprouts from the Leets, or Japanese ivy slips from the Sissons, or peonies from the old Doller homestead, or mignonette from Mrs. Roth, or dahlias from Mrs. Knox, or marigolds from the Baylors, or pansies from the Haynes, or tulip bulbs from Mrs. Redd, or something or another from somebody else.

You can depend upon it that all this kept me wondrously busy. I broke four trowels and raised a dozen ugly blisters on my right hand in my attempt to get these tender tokens of friendship transplanted before they withered. One day Mrs. Baylor and Mrs. Rush took me to a neighboring greenhouse with them; they wanted to purchase some vines to train over their front porches. The man at the greenhouse showed me an innumerable assortment of beautiful rose-bushes, which I bought in the fond delusion that they would vastly embellish our front lawn. I recall the pride with which I told Alice and Adah that I guessed I had purchased enough flowers to fill the whole yard. I recall also the sense of humiliation I experienced when, after that innumerable assortment had been set out in the yard, I discovered that there was not enough of them to make an impression even upon the most susceptible eye.

I am not yet quite sure whether neighbor Macleod was in earnest or whether he meant it in fun when he sent us a magnificent thistle, with the suggestion that we plant it in our lawn. But, out of respect to neighbor Macleod's patriotism as a loyal son of Caledonia, I did plant the thistle in amiable compliance with my friend's suggestion. Other neighbors protested against this, but I imputed their objections to that natural feeling of jealousy which is too likely to manifest itself when the interests of other neighbors are involved. The thistle was an uncommonly large and active one, and I suffered somewhat from its teeth before I finally got it comfortably located in a patch of succulent turf under one of our willow-trees.

The unusually warm spell to which I have referred was followed (as you will doubtless recollect), by a period of bitterly cold weather. With an anguish which I am utterly incapable of describing, I saw my marigolds and mignonette and roses and peonies and dahlias and pansies and other leafy pets wither and droop and shrivel. In less than forty-eight hours' time they were all apparently as dead as that side of the moon which is invisible to us. The only flower or shrub in all that once blooming lawn which remained unshorn of its beauty by the bitter hyperborean blasts was the Macleod thistle. Proudly it reared itself amid that desolation, and defiantly it exhibited its fangs to foe and friend alike.

I cannot tell you how heartily I rejoiced that I had not yielded to the importunities of the Baylors, the Tiltmans, the Browes, and the Denslows when, in an ebullition of neighborly jealousy, they sought the destruction of that sturdy plant. But my delight was of short duration. One morning before I arrived to pursue my horticultural avocation a remorseless policeman invaded the premises and pulled up the bristling emblem of Scotia and cast it into the hard highway under the pretext that by so doing he was complying with a provision of the revised statutes. I learned that this policeman is a Swede, and I can justify his conduct only upon the hypothesis of heredity, although it is hard to conceive that the malignant feeling which existed centuries ago among the Norsemen who were wont to harry the Scottish coast should exhibit itself at this remote period in the demeanor of a naturalized Swede who presumably does not know the difference between a viking and a meteorite.

If I had been of a sarcastic or of a bitter nature, I might have imputed this curious train of mishaps to the malign influence of that maternal tabby cat which Uncle Si had hailed as a harbinger of good luck. As it was, I could not resist giving play to my desire for retaliation when Uncle Si confided to me one morning that some unscrupulous person or persons had invaded the premises the night before and had carried off about six thousand feet of choice lumber. I was disposed to be very wroth at first, but when I gathered from Uncle Si's remarks that the loss would fall upon him and not upon me my anger was assuaged to a degree that admitted of my suggesting to Uncle Si that perhaps this incident might be reckoned as a part of that "good luck" which the advent of the tabby cat and her kits had prognosticated.

Having unbosomed myself of this perhaps too savage thrust, I gave Uncle Si a cigar and in my most cordial tones bade him "never mind and be of good cheer." I make it a practice never to say or do that which is likely to occasion pain or humiliation without accompanying the word or the deed with somewhat that shall serve as an antidote thereunto. For I bear ill will to none, and it is constantly my endeavor to make life pleasant and dear not only to myself but also to my fellow beings.

My consideration for Uncle Si's feelings was almost immediately rewarded, for as I left Uncle Si smoking his cigar in a comforted mood I beheld my neighbor, Colonel Bobbett Doller, coming up the driveway and beckoning to me. If you know the colonel as I do, you know him to be a gentleman of wealth, of position, and of influence. Moreover, Colonel Doller is a man of large sympathies. He had heard of our recent acquisition and had come to congratulate me. We shook hands warmly.

"You have here," said Colonel Doller, cordially, "a magnificent property, and I heartily rejoice to learn that you acquired it at a merely nominal price. Has it occurred to you, my dear sir, that this tract, with its majestic sweep of lawn and its picturesque glory of shade trees, presents tremendous possibilities—in fact, secures to you the opportunity of comprehending riches beyond the dreams of avarice? Let us be seated upon this pile of bricks while I unfold to you a panorama of potentialities."



X

COLONEL DOLLER'S GREAT IDEA

Colonel Bobbett Doller and I sat down, side by side, on the pile of bricks, and the colonel proceeded straightway to disclose pleasing visions to my mind's eye.

"You are doubtless aware," said the colonel, "that you are not, in the severest acceptation of the term, a business man?"

"Alas," said I, "I am compelled in all candor to admit that lamentable fact."

"Then," continued the colonel, "you probably do not know that this noble expanse of high ground upon which your stately residence is reared is the exact centre of a radius of eighty miles. In other words, did the power of your vision extend eighty miles you would be able to see for yourself from the roof of your superb house that this point is in fact the centre of a radius representing a stretch in any and every direction of eighty miles."

"No, I had never supposed it possible," said I.

"It is, nevertheless, a demonstrable fact," said Colonel Doller. "It is more notorious, however, that this property of yours (designated in the records as the south half of lot 16, Terhune's addition, section 9, township of Pond View)"——

"Page 273, volume 105," said I, interrupting him; for I suddenly recalled the superscription on the warranty deed.

"Exactly," said Colonel Doller, with a genial smile. "Now, as I was about to remark, it is notorious that this property of yours is situate in the very heart of the delectable tract known to the world as the North Shore. I do not exaggerate when I say, in the language of my popular brochure entitled, 'Homes for the Homeless,' that the North Shore offers inducements, both for the living and for the dead, which are not met with in any other part of our growing community. Recognizing the merit of these inducements, immigration has turned its tide toward the North Shore. Ten years ago there was naught but desolation where now the dandelion blooms and the voice of the tree-toad is heard in song. What do we see about us to-day? To the north of us the roof of Martin Howard's new barn glistens under the smiling noonday sun. Turning our gaze westward we behold the turrets of the palatial residence which neighbor Bales has erected in Razzle Street. Yonder in the southeast horizon we detect the tall, lithe flagpole which Major Ryson has set up as a graceful tribute to the memory of the late lamented yacht club. Cast your eyes where you will and you will see convincing evidences of the onward, irresistible march of civilization.

"This noble property of yours," continued Colonel Doller, "is the very heart of all this pulsing, throbbing, bustling, teeming civilization. Why, my dear Baker, I would not exchange (if I were you) the opportunities now within your grasp for any other conceivable thing—not even though millions were placed in the opposing scale!"

"I don't believe I understand you," said I.

"I will be more explicit," said Colonel Doller. "The tide of immigration has already overwhelmed this section; a great commercial wave is closely following it. Trade will soon locate its emporiums in the midst of us. Already two blocks to the south of this property a commercial mart has begun to invite the attention and the patronage of our public."

"You refer to Pusheck's grocery store?"

"The same," said Colonel Doller. "Presently a barber-shop and a banana stand will follow; then a bicycle repair-shop will spring up in our midst, and from that moment our status as a commercial centre will be assured."

As I was in no sense a business man I could not deny this. To be frank with you, it all looked very plausible to me.

"There is nothing else," continued Colonel Doller, "more practicable or of greater value than foreseeing events and being prepared for them. Now, here you are in the very midst of this flood of immigration, and with the tidal wave of commerce at your very door. Is your property in a position to avail you handsomely in case you accede to the demands of reason and conclude to yield to the persuasions of immigration and commerce? The consideration which should be paramount with you is this: 'Having secured this property, how can I get rid of it to the best advantage?'"

"But it is n't for sale," said I.

"True, quite true," answered Colonel Doller, with a weary, patient smile, "but it will be. What is North Shore property for if not for sale? You certainly do not intend to violate all the customs and traditions of the community by holding out against an opportunity to benefit yourself? That, my dear Baker, would be folly."

"But nobody has asked us to sell," said I, apologetically.

"That is because your property is not in desirable shape," said the colonel. "If it were, you would have chances to enrich yourself in less than a month. You see your lot fronts one hundred feet on Clarendon Avenue, and runs back two hundred and thirty-nine feet to a prospective alley; this gives you one hundred feet of salable property, but with a depth that actually involves a wicked waste of land. Now suppose you were to buy the twenty-five feet that lies to the south on Clarendon Avenue just between your lot and Sandpile Terrace. That would give you a frontage of two hundred and thirty-nine feet on the terrace, with a depth altogether of one hundred and twenty-five feet! Do you follow me?"

"Yes, I see," said I, as this good and shrewd man's meaning gradually stole upon me.

"With that additional twenty-five feet," resumed Colonel Doller, "you could divide up the whole property into what you might call (if you chose) Baker's Subdivision: then you could parcel it off into twenty-foot lots with frontage on Sandpile Terrace—and there you are, a rich man almost before you know it."

"Gracious me! That is a great idea!" said I, and I whistled softly to myself.

"Great? Well, I should say so!" exclaimed Colonel Doller. "I knew it would appeal to you, for you are a man of intelligence and capable of foreseeing and appreciating potentialities."

"Who owns that strip?" I asked, referring to the twenty-five feet adjoining our lot to the south.

"Well, it happens to be mine," said Colonel Doller. "As soon as I heard that you had purchased this place it occurred to me that you ought to have that twenty-five feet in order to make the rest of your property available. So, without saying a word about it to anybody else, I 've stepped over here to tell you that if you want it I 'll throw that strip in to you at one hundred and twenty-five dollars per front foot."

"We gave only one hundred dollars a foot for this lot," said I.

"Very true," said Colonel Doller, "but my lot admits of giving you a frontage of two hundred and thirty-nine feet on Sandpile Terrace."

"To be sure it does," said I. "For the moment I quite lost sight of that. Well, I think very favorably of it, and I suspect Mr. Black would insist upon my closing with you at once. I 'll speak to Alice about it."

"Be careful not to breathe a word of it to anybody else," suggested Colonel Doller in a low, mysterious tone, "and whatever else you do, don't let my partner, Leet, have even so much as an inkling of the fact that we 've had a talk! You understand?"

"It shall be kept a profound secret!" said I, with solemn earnestness.

Colonel Doller patted me reassuringly on the shoulder as he arose to depart.

"Baker," said he, kindly, "you are as good as a rich man already! You get that extra twenty-five feet and make a subdivision of this property, and you 'll have so much money you won't know what to do with it! Why, the next thing we'll hear of you, you'll be living in a castle on a hill, with an observatory—just think of it, Baker, old man! an observatory and a twelve-foot telescope capable of discovering a new comet every night, rain or shine!"

The kind gentleman's enthusiasm quite took my breath away. As I watched him departing down the shady drive my heart overflowed with gratitude, and again I thanked the providential Power that had given me so many kind, solicitous, and self-sacrificing friends.

My conversation with Colonel Doller set me to indulging in thoughts which were entirely new to me, and which pleased me with their novelty and brilliancy. I fancied myself already possessed of a wealth which permitted me to pursue unreservedly those studies and investigations which have been my delight since youth. In imagination I pictured myself the owner of a sightly residence surmounted by a spacious observatory, in which was located a magnificent reflector-telescope operated by the newest and nicest mechanism. It was pleasing to be rich, even in fancy. My thoughts reverted to the children.

"Dear pampered darlings," I murmured, "they little know the lives of independence and of ease that are before them. They will never know what it is to toil and to economize. And Alice—sweet girl—this will put an end to her worry about grocery bills!"

It is curious how completely I lost interest in our new house as soon as the prospect of getting rich dawned upon me. You will not believe it, but after that talk with Colonel Doller I looked with actual disdain upon the old Schmittheimer home and its broad, velvety lawn under the noble trees. I was so possessed with the fascinating scheme suggested by Colonel Doller that I was even tempted to bid Uncle Si and his men quit work until I had consulted with Alice as to the feasibility of abandoning the proposed improvements and investing the rest of Mr. Black's three thousand dollars in the twenty-five-foot strip to the south of us. I am glad now that the still small voice within me prevailed, and that I saw Alice before saying anything to Uncle Si.

"Reuben Baker," exclaimed Alice, "that property is mine and I bought it for a home, not to sell. If you and Colonel Doller want to speculate, you need n't think you 're going to rope me into any of your schemes."

"But, Alice, darling—"

"I sha' n't listen to a word of such nonsense," persisted Alice. "So, there."

I was inclined to remonstrate, but just at that moment the front door bell rang and a telegraphic message was handed in. The message was from Cincinnati and it read in this wise:

"Shall be there to-morrow morning to look things over. Luther M. Black."

In the prospect of a visit from our patron, Mr. Black, I speedily forgot all about Colonel Bobbett Doller and his pleasing panorama of potentialities. In this we see illustrated the wisdom of Providence in so dispensing human events as to soothe the wounds of disappointment with the balm of anticipation.



XI

I MAKE A STAND FOR MY RIGHTS

Shortly after Mr. Black's arrival that worthy gentleman was escorted with all due formality to the old Schmittheimer place in Clarendon Avenue. Recognizing the fact that first impressions are lasting, we determined that Mr. Black's first impressions of our purchase should be favorable. So we conducted him to our property by a rather circuitous route. The approach to the old Schmittheimer place from the north is by all means the most agreeable; it leads by Mr. Rink's fine colonial house and Martin Howard's new place and through an embowered avenue of weeping willows, which, out of deference to his melancholy profession, Mr. Dimmons, landscape gardener of our most prosperous cemetery, has constructed in front of his beautiful residence in Thistle Patch Court; a turn is then made upon Dandelion Place, and just one block this side of Mr. Allworth's bowlder house (famous as the greatest bargain ever acquired on the North Shore) another turn to the right brings you in sight and within a few yards of our property.

Mr. Black was pleased with the neighborhood. He is not a man of enthusiasms; in all the years of my acquaintance with him I have never known him to give way to an ebullition of any kind. Yet upon this occasion there was an expression upon his face when he first set eyes upon our property which gave me to understand that he approved of our purchase. I hastened to clinch this favorable impression by apprising him briefly of the proposition Colonel Bobbett Doller had made to me the previous afternoon, and I flatter myself that, between us, Alice and I made a pretty fair presentation of the merits of our new place.

"You seem to have begun reconstructing the house," said Mr. Black. "Who is your architect?"

"We have no real architect," said I. "In order to save expense we have employed a boss carpenter capable not only of designing plans, but also of executing them. His name is Silas Plum."

"Plum? That is a very familiar name to me," said Mr. Black. "I wonder whether he is any kin to the Plum family of Maine. There was an Elnathan Plum, who used to live in Aroostook, and I went to school with him at Pocatapaug Academy in the winter of 1827. The last time I visited Maine I was told that he had moved west in 1840, or thereabouts. He married a third cousin of mine whose maiden name was Eastman—Euphemia Eastman, as I recall it."

Of course I was unable to say what Uncle Si's antecedents were, but I felt pretty certain that, if left to himself, Mr. Black would find out all about them, for of all the people I ever met with Mr. Black surely has the most astounding faculty for acquiring and remembering genealogical data.

Our worthy friend consumed fully a half-hour's time inspecting our front lawn, examining into the condition of the fence, learning what kind of trees we had, and ascertaining the character and depth of the soil. I do not hesitate to affirm that he knew more about these things at the end of that half-hour than I shall know at the end of ten years' daily association with them. I took pains, however, to make the most of what small knowledge I had, and with considerable flourish I called Mr. Black's attention to our lilac and gooseberry bushes, and with conscious pride pointed out the wild grape vine in the corner of the yard. I told Mr. Black that it was our intention to have a kitchen garden back of the house, and that among other things we should cultivate onions of the choicest quality. I had an object in specifying the onions particularly, for I knew that Mr. Black had a fondness (amounting almost to a passion) for this succulent fruit.

In all that I pointed out and in all that I said Mr. Black appeared to take more than common interest. One thing that seemed to please him particularly was the discovery that three of our currant bushes had escaped the malice of the workmen, and he promised Alice to write to his niece at Biddeford for her recipe for making currant wine, a beverage which, he assured us, would cheer but not inebriate.

Alice and I had made it up beforehand that we would leave Mr. Black and Uncle Si together for a spell after we had introduced them to each other; for we wanted our patron to learn for himself (unembarrassed by our presence) just what had been done and how it had been done. I take it for granted that the two enjoyed their three hours' confabulation, but I more than half suspect they spent precious little of that time in a discussion of our affairs. Mr. Black told me afterward that he had ascertained that Uncle Si (or Silas, as he called him) was, as he had surmised, a son of Elnathan Plum of Aroostook.

"Silas looks more like his mother's side of the family," said Mr. Black. "The Eastmans, as I remember them, were tall and spare, with blue eyes and straight noses. We have an Eastman in Cincinnati who looks enough like Silas to be his brother, although he belongs to the Ebenezer Eastman branch of the family, who located in Westboro, Mass,, in 1765. Tooker Eastman, the Cincinnati representative of the family, is pastor of the First Church; he married Sukey, the widow of Amos Sears, who (that is to say, Amos) was a son of Calvin Sears, who was postmaster at Biddeford while I was a young man in that town."

From this and other similar morsels of information which Mr. Black let fall in my hearing I gathered that Mr. Black's talk with Uncle Si had been rather of a historical and reminiscent than of a business character. But this mattered not to me; it was clear that Mr. Black approved of our purchase and of the improvements we contemplated, and that was enough to insure our entire satisfaction.

When I came down from my study that evening I found Mr. Black and Alice sitting in the parlor, looking mysteriously solemn.

"I have been advising your wife to make a will," said Mr. Black.

"Why, Alice dear, are you ill?" I asked, in genuine alarm.

Alice laughingly answered that she had never before felt heartier or in finer spirits.

"Then why make a will?" I asked. "Who ever heard of a person's making a will unless he was sick?"

"You are laboring under a delusion too common to humanity," said Mr. Black. "In the midst of life we are in death. It is during health and while we are in full possession of our physical and mental faculties that we should provide against that penalty which we all alike as debtors are sooner or later to pay to nature. Your wife has recently become possessed by purchase of property that may eventually be of large value. It seems proper that she should draw a will indicating her desires as to the disposal of this property in the event of her demise."

"But what," I cried with honest feeling, "what would be lands or gold without my Alice?"

"Calm your agitation, Reuben dear," said Alice. "The suggestion which Mr. Black has made does not involve you to the extent of making you an heir."

"No," said Mr. Black, "it is proper that you should have a life estate in the property, but the property itself should ultimately go to the children."

"Still," said Alice, thoughtfully, "if Reuben were to survive me it would be just like him to marry again, and I believe I should just rise up in my grave if I thought another woman was living on the premises which I myself had earned."

"Oh, but Alice, that is very unfair!" I expostulated. "It is I who am earning the money—or, at least, it is I who expect to earn the money wherewith to repay our dear friend, Mr. Black, the sums he has advanced and may advance for our property!"

"There! I suspected it all the time," cried Alice, indignantly. "You are already claiming the property—you are already preparing for my death—I daresay you have your eyes already on the woman who is to step into my place when I am gone! But I won't die—no, I just won't! But I 'll make a will and I 'll give everything to the children, and you sha' n't have a thing when I do die—not a thing, not even a life estate—so there!"

Mr. Black and I were trying to soothe the dear creature, when there came a knock at the front door. Alice popped up and made her escape into the dining-room. The front door opened and the ruddy, smiling face of neighbor Denslow appeared.

"Pardon my informality," said Mr. Denslow, cheerily; "can I come in?"

"By all means," I cried. "You are in good season to meet my old and valued friend, Mr. Black."

Mr. Denslow greeted Mr. Black effusively. All my neighbors had heard me speak of my generous patron, and they all took a really noble neighborly pride in promoting my interests with him. Mr. Denslow began at once to dilate in eloquent terms upon the bargain Alice and I had secured in the old Schmittheimer place.

"And, by the way," said Mr. Denslow, turning to me, "the mention of your bargain reminds me of the object of my call. August Schmittheimer, a son of the widow, came to my office to-day to tell me that he is prepared to let you have the thirty-three feet in the rear of your lot at a merely nominal price—say two hundred dollars."

I had cast envious eyes upon this particular strip of ground several times. Alice had remarked that it would afford an ideal spot upon which to hang out the washing on Monday mornings; at other times it would serve as a convenient playground for Josephine and little Erasmus. It really seemed like a special Providence that what we had been wishing for should unexpectedly be thrust within our very grasp.

"I think that we should have that extra strip by all means," said I; and then I added, by way of demonstrating the wisdom of my opinion to Mr. Black: "We shall thus be enabled to enlarge our onion bed to pretentious proportions."

This argument must have convinced Mr. Black, for he remarked at once that he recognized the wisdom of acquiring the extra piece of land at the bargain price suggested.

"If it pleases you, then," said Mr. Denslow, "I will attend the first thing in the morning to having the investigation into the title begun, and I suppose that within the next three days the deal can be consummated and the property duly transferred to Mrs. Baker."

Too often I do not think of the bright and felicitous thing to say or do until it is too late. On this occasion, however, a really shrewd and happy thought occurred to me. The somewhat malicious purpose it contemplated was justified, I claim, by the context (so to speak) of events.

"Neighbor Denslow," said I, confidentially, "when it comes to the transfer of that property please be so kind as to have the warranty deed made to me."

Mr. Denslow looked so surprised, and so did Mr. Black, that I deemed an explanation necessary.



XII

I AM DECEIVED IN MR. WAX

I went on to say that it seemed to me to be unwise to invest too much power in Alice's hands; that I had certain rights which should be protected, and that if I was not to be assured a life estate in Alice's property I ought to have at least thirty-three feet to which I could, in an emergency, retire to spend the evening of my existence in peace and security.

"Possessed of that thirty-three feet," said I, "I make no question that I shall soon be able to bring Alice to terms. Give me the power to stand on my own patch of ground and defy Alice every Monday morning when the weekly wash is ready to be hung out, and I will cheerfully risk the future."

Mr. Denslow and Mr. Black are sensible and loyal men; they recognized the propriety of standing by me in this emergency, and it was agreed that the extra piece of ground should be conveyed to me.

That night I dreamed that Alice had been called to her heavenly reward and that I had been turned out of doors by our heartless children. I was an aged and tottering man. The wind blew lustily and a storm was raging. I drew my threadbare coat closer about me, for I was shivering with the cold.

"Alas," I cried (in my dream), "whither shall I turn? Is there no spot on earth where I can die in peace?"

Then, O joy! it occurred to me (in my dream) that I owned the thirty-three feet back of the dear old home. Two years' taxes were due on it, but it was still mine—all mine!

"The snow is deep and clean and hospitable there," I cried (still in my dream), "and it is all mine own! To that snowbank will I make my way, and there will I lie down to sleep my last sleep."

But just then I awoke to discover that it was only a dream. Had I been of a superstitious nature I might have read in this dream divers premonitions and strange significances. As it was, it merely confirmed me in my belief that I had done wisely in securing that thirty-three-foot strip.

Mr. Black went back home next day, and nothing more was said for the nonce about a "will" or a "life estate," or any matter thereunto appertaining, and disagreeable to Alice and to me alike. The cold weather having melted away into sunshine and warmth, I once more began to be deeply interested in horticulture and floriculture, and this, too, in spite of the ineffaceable scars which the spade-wielding vandals had left in the large front yard in the alleged interest of the sewer, water, and gas-pipes.

This enthusiasm of mine in behalf of matters of which I knew absolutely nothing was retired by my respected neighbor, Fadda Pierce, who is so learned in all affairs involving flowers and shrubbery that I actually believe that what he does n't know about them is n't worth knowing. Fadda's cottage is covered with every variety of dainty and luxurious vine, and in his yard bloom all kinds of rare and beautiful flowers. He is so famed for his fondness for and luck with flowers that I felt grateful to the dear old gentleman when he visited me with a view to advising me as to the kind of flowers I ought to plant in my lawn and around the house.

It was then that I learned of the existence of shrubs, vines, and flowers of which I had never before heard. It is indeed amazing that an ordinarily intelligent man can reach the age of forty-five years without being able to profess truthfully a more or less intimate acquaintance with hydrangeas, fuchsias, taraxacums, syringas, sisymbriums, gilliflowers, kentaphyllons, maydenheer, chrysanthemums, orchids, geraniums, lichens, laburnums, jasmines, heliotropes, gentians, eucalyptuses, crocuses, carnations, dahlias, cactuses, billybuttons, anemones, anthropomorphons, amaranths, etc., etc. Fadda Pierce did not chide me for my heathenish ignorance; he seemed to take it for granted that I had been too busy acquiring knowledge in other lines to have time to devote to research in botany. He was much more considerate than neighbor Roth was when he pulled up his team in front of my house one day and asked me how far it was to Glencoe. I answered that I did not know; whereupon he shrugged his shoulders and muttered: "I thought as much, by gosh! You can tell how fur 't is to the sun, the moon, an' the stars, but you can't tell how fur 't is to Glencoe!"

Fadda Pierce advised me to set out about two dozen cobies (I think he called them) around our new colonial front porch, and then he kindly designated certain spots in the yard where beds ought to be constructed for certain flowers, the names of which he wrote down on a slip of paper. Some of these beds were to be circular, some square, and some oblong. Fadda told me that I would require at least three loads of black dirt, and he gave me the address of a person who dealt in this precious commodity at one dollar and a half a load. I called upon this person at once and ordered the three loads of black dirt to be delivered immediately. I then bethought myself that I required an outfit of garden tools; so I made my way to the nearest hardware shop and purchased a spade, a hoe, a rake, a wheelbarrow, a watering can, a trowel, and a pruning-knife. I trundled the barrow home, with the other purchases in it.

The day was exceedingly warm, and my appearance in this new role excited the derision of my neighbors; but I felt rather flattered to be called Farmer Baker, and I was glad to give the Baylors, the Edwardses, the Dollers, the Tiltmans, the Rushes, the Sissons, and the rest to understand that I by no means disdained to condescend to the humble plane of an agriculturist. Now that I come to think of it, I remember to have read somewhere that Galileo took his recreation at hoeing and grubbing in the vineyard adjoining his observatory.

As I trundled the barrow up the winding road of the Schmittheimer place I became aware that a man was following me. So I stopped and waited for him to overtake me. His appearance indicated poverty and all its attendant miseries.

"Good sir," said the stranger, "pardon me for this intrusion, but misfortunes of a most grievous character compel me to thrust myself upon your mercy. You behold in me, sir, one of the most hapless of creatures, one whom adversity has buffeted with cruel pertinacity, and finally driven out to become a homeless and friendless wanderer upon the face of the earth. My name, sir, is Percival Wax, born and reared under the auspices of riches, but now forced by the reverses of remorseless fate to importune you for the wherewithal to procure food and lodging."

"Mr. Wax," said I, "your appearance by no means belies your words. Your raiment is torn and soiled; your shoes are not mates, and your hat was evidently made for a larger head than yours. I also read in your dim eyes, your unkempt beard, and your dishevelled hair corroboration of your claims to intimacy with adversity. While I sympathize with you in your misfortune, I cannot break one of the imperative rules which govern the conduct of my life; if you are willing to work I will gladly provide you with the means of relief from your embarrassment."

"Work? Ah, kind sir," said Mr. Wax, eagerly, "it is that which I have vainly sought for weeks. I have been out of employment ever since the combined efforts of our National Administration and of our incompetent Congress succeeded in sowing the seeds of distrust in every mind, thereby stagnating business and precipitating a financial crisis, from the debris of which I can never hope to arise."

"Can you make flower-beds, Mr. Wax?" I asked.

"Kind gentleman," he answered, "my profession before financial ruin overwhelmed me was that of a landscape gardener."

This was, indeed, a marvellously pleasing coincidence. Here was the very man I needed.

"Take up the barrow, Mr. Wax, and follow me," said I.

I showed him where I wanted the flowerbeds made—the circular, the square, and the oblong. He was first to remove the turf and then fill in and square up the beds with black dirt. I found him quick to understand, and he seemed to be anxious to get to work.

"You can begin as soon as you please," said I. "Meanwhile I shall go to luncheon, and on my return I shall bring you three or four mustard sandwiches and some hard-boiled eggs to stay you until you have finished your task."

"Thank you, kind sir," said Mr. Wax with tears of gratitude in his voice.

I was gone an hour or more. At luncheon I told Alice of what I had done, but she did not seem to share my enthusiasm at having provided Mr. Wax with an opportunity to turn an honest penny or two. She very clearly indicated to me her distrust of all tramps, to which class she was sure Mr. Wax belonged. Thereupon I warned Alice against the inhumanity and wickedness of insensibility to the sufferings of others, and I was glad that the children were at the table with us to hear my remarks in praise of that charity which has compassion for all conditions of misery.

Upon my return to the Schmittheimer place I was disappointed to find that no progress had been made with the flower-beds.

"I wonder where Mr. Wax is?" said I to Uncle Si.

"Do you mean that —— tramp that was here about noon?" asked Uncle Si.

"He may have been a tramp," said I, purposely ignoring Uncle Si's profane epithet (for I do not approve of profanity).

"He went away shortly after you went," said Uncle Si. "I asked him where he was going with the wheelbarrow and the garden tools, and he said you had hired him to take them over to your house in Heavenward Avenue for you."

"Mr. Wax lied to you," said I. "He has stolen that barrow and those tools."

Uncle Si consoled me by telling me that in all human probability Mr. Wax had sold his stealings by this time and was already squandering his ill-gotten gains in a barroom. I lamented not only the ingratitude and dishonesty of this man whom I had sought to befriend, but also the loss of my barrow and my garden tools. There was, however, some consolation in the thought that my experience would serve me to good purpose in the future.

The three mustard sandwiches and the two hard-boiled eggs which I had brought from home for Mr. Wax's luncheon I now took down into the cellar and fed to Alice, the mother cat. Had I been a superstitious person I should not have performed this kind deed by one whom many might have regarded as the prognostic (if not actually the cause) of the many evils which had befallen me of late. As it was, I took a kind of spiteful satisfaction in observing that the gaunt beast did not exhibit that exuberant fondness for mustard sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs which might be confidently looked for in the mother of six healthy and always hungry kittens.



XIII

EDITOR WOODSIT A TRUE FRIEND

One morning—it was a Thursday morning, as I distinctly recall—I was much surprised to find that work upon the house had practically been suspended. I was sure there could not have been a strike, for I told the workmen at the beginning that whenever they felt as if they were not getting enough pay they must come to me about it and I would raise their wages. They had already been to me three times and received an increase of pay each time. So I felt moderately secure against a strike. Uncle Si explained the situation briefly.

"The plasterers were to have begun today," said he, "but there is no water for them; so I had to send them away."

"No water?" I cried. "No water? Then tell me, I pray, why this noble front yard of ours has been converted into a dreary waste by those vandals with their spades and picks? Why is that deep, wide, ragged ditch still yawning in our faces and threatening the death of every tree at whose roots it crawls? And why did I pay Sibley the plumber forty-five dollars last Saturday night, if it were not for the laying of water pipe in that hideous ditch? No water, indeed!"

"It is nobody's fault but the city's," explained Uncle Si. "The pipe is all laid and nothing remains but for the city to make the connection with the main in the street. You see we can't tap the main; that is for the city to do."

"Then why does n't the city do it?" I asked.

Uncle Si shrugged his shoulders.

"The city ought to do a good many things it does n't do," said he. "They promised to have that main tapped at eight o'clock last Monday morning, and here it is ten o'clock Thursday morning and not a drop of water on the place! There is n't any use kicking, for those politicians down at the City Hall do things their own way and take their own time doing 'em!"

I saw that argument with Uncle Si meant simply a waste of time, so I determined to go down-town to the City Hall myself to see whether no eloquence or indignation of my own would move the derelict officers to a performance of their duty. On the train I fell in with Mr. Leet, who was on his way to his place of business. He had not seen me since our purchase of the Schmittheimer property, and he took this first occasion to congratulate me upon what he called one of those bargains which occur at rare intervals in a century. Finding me in a felicitous mood, Mr. Leet went on to say that the property we already possessed would be enhanced in value an hundred-fold and would be rendered marketable instantaneously by the further acquisition of the twenty-five feet adjoining it upon the north.

"Yes," said I, "Mr. Doller spoke to me about that twenty-five-foot strip some time ago."

"Aha, so Doller has been approaching you, has he?" said Mr. Leet, softly. "Well, Doller is very cunning—very cunning, indeed. But he has nothing to do with the north strip. He owns the twenty-five feet to the south of your property, the piece fronting on Sandpile Terrace, and a very malarious location it is, too. I pledge you my word, Mr. Baker, I have seen mosquitos hovering over that Doller strip at night as big as bats!"

I could neither deny nor affirm the truth of this assertion.

"My twenty-five-foot strip to the north," continued Mr. Leet, "is high and dry and sightly. The view it commands of the Water Works is indescribably fine. You are surely practical enough to see, Mr. Baker, that by purchasing that strip and throwing it in with yours you will have a subdivision fronting upon Dandelion Place which would offer unparalleled inducements to the seeker after suburban property. What is more," added Mr. Leet in a confidential whisper, "it would not surprise me a bit if there were coal deposits in the twenty-five-foot strip of mine. I have very distinct suspicions, but the paramount importance of my other business interests has prevented me from making the investigation which might enrich me beyond all calculation. Now, you have time, and if you feel disposed to take that property I 'll let you have it at the merely nominal price of one hundred and twenty-five dollars a front foot."

This seemed reasonable enough, particularly when I considered the chances of there being a coal mine on the property. However, as I had told Mr. Doller, so I now told Mr. Leet: I would first have to speak to Alice about the matter. Then I confided to Mr. Leet the object of my mission down-town. Presumably in the hope of insuring and clinching my devotion to his interests as represented in his twenty-five-foot lot, Mr. Leet manifested solicitude in my behalf and inveighed bitterly against the shiftlessness of the municipal administration as illustrated in the neglect to tap the water main for the benefit of my property.

"The most aggravatingly exasperating part of it all," says I, "is that I am a Republican and have been one for thirty years. Moreover, I am a reformer, having helped to organize the Civic Federation and having served for somewhat more than a year as chairman of the Special Committee on Ash Barrels and Garbage Boxes in the third precinct of the Twenty-fifth Ward. I made several addresses during the last campaign in advocacy of civil-service reform and all those other reforms which are invariably advocated and promised by the party which is not in power but wants to be. In the thirty years that I have been a Republican I have never asked a favor of my party, and it does seem just a bit ungrateful that the Republican reform municipal administration which I helped to elect should seize with apparent avidity upon its first opportunity to snub me by refusing to tap the public water main in front of my property."

"You should see Mayor Speedy about it," suggested Mr. Leet.

"I thought of doing so," said I, "but as I had already determined to approach him with reference to changing the name of Mush Street to Clarendon Avenue, I concluded that I ought not to call upon him with this complaint about the water. I particularly wish to avoid all appearance of hampering the administration with importunities and complaints of a personal nature."

"A man of your reputation," said Mr. Leet, "should certainly have the strongest kind of a pull at the City Hall."

"You may not believe it," said I, "but I do not know a man in the City Hall. I visit the place but twice a year, and my dealings on those occasions are restricted to a haughty young foreigner, who graciously permits me to pay him the amount of my water tax and then waves me to another foreigner who in turn waves me to the door. No, I have no influence at the City Hall, and as I was telling Editor Woodsit last week—"

"Do you know Editor Woodsit?" asked Mr. Leet, interrupting me.

"Indeed I do," said I; "he has promised to print my essay on the nebular hypothesis of Professor Lecouvrier as soon as his contract with the monometallist college professors expires. He is one of the most intimate friends I have."

"Then he is just the one to fix that City Hall matter for you," said Mr. Leet. "Woodsit is the most potent political influence in the midst of us."

It was hard to understand why a potent political influence should be invoked in order to secure the tapping of a water main. However, I determined to enlist the cooeperation of my journalistic friend. Twenty or thirty people were waiting outside Editor Woodsit's door. This number included noted clergymen, poets, authors, politicians, jurists, merchants, etc., etc. By some means or another, Editor Woodsit learned I was among the waiting throng, and he sent for me to come in. His private office is spacious and elegantly furnished. The walls are hung with splendid tapestries and costly oil paintings. Over Editor Woodsit's desk appears the legend, "The Pen Is Mightier Than the Sword." Near the desk are rows of nickel-plated tubes, about six feet in height and two feet in diameter; the lids or covers to these tubes are opened by means of a keyboard in front of the editor. The tubes themselves contain the heads of the departments of the State and municipal governments.

"What you tell me pains me deeply," said Mr. Woodsit, after he heard my story. "But there is no need of going to the City Hall about it; the matter can be attended to here. I never trifle with underlings when the responsible heads are at hand."

Editor Woodsit reached over and touched a button on the keyboard; it was button No. 9. Immediately the lid or top of tube No. 9 flew open and the head and face of a man appeared; it was the head and face of Commissioner Dent.

"This friend of mine," said Editor Woodsit, sternly, "complains that he can't get your department to connect the pipe with the water main in front of his property. My friend is a Republican, Dent, and he is a reformer. What excuse have you to offer for neglecting him?"

Commissioner Dent turned very pale and he vainly tried to stammer an apology.

"This is a pretty kind of reform!" cried Editor Woodsit, savagely. "If a similar complaint occurs again I shall have your case investigated by my legal and spiritual counsellor, Joshua Selah, and may be have you impeached. Now see that Mr. Baker's reasonable demands are complied with at once."

With these words Editor Woodsit touched another button, and the head and face of Commissioner Dent disappeared and the top closed down over the box. It was all the work of two or three minutes, and it was certainly the most marvellous experience I had ever met with. My wonderment increased when I learned an hour later, upon my arrival home, that less than fifteen minutes (as I figure it) after I left Editor Woodsit's office an employe of Commissioner Dent's department came galloping up to my place on a foam-flecked steed, and, vaulting from his saddle, unswung his melting-furnace, soldering-irons, and other tools, and, quicker than you could say a pater noster, tapped the water main and made the desired connection with the pipe that fed my premises.

"I guess you must have a pull at the City Hall," said Uncle Si; and then he went on to tell me how people who have no pull have to wait weeks, sometimes, before their just requirements are answered by the municipal authorities. If what Uncle Si tells me is true I cannot be too glad that I have what is even more efficacious than a pull at the City Hall—a friend in Editor Woodsit.



XIV

THE VICTIM OF AN ORDINANCE.

And now that a plentiful supply of water was provided, it seemed proper to celebrate by giving the lawn (poor abused thing!) a deluge of the refreshing element. The exceeding ardor of the sun and the absence of rain had wrought havoc with the grass and shrubbery. The drought seemed determined to finish the work of destruction which the workmen, with their picks and spades, had begun. With a joyous heart, therefore, I applied myself to the task of rescuing the fainting vegetation. I borrowed Mr. Tiltman's hose because it was the best and longest in the neighborhood and was provided with a patent nozzle which was so versatile that there was actually no detail in its business which it did not perform in a most masterly way. I shall never forget the feeling of exultation with which I stood on that expansive lawn and sprayed the parched grass and drooping shrubbery. I fancied I could see the thirsty blades and leaves reach up to drink in the restoring element. My thoughts while I was thus engaged were similar, I suppose, to those of benevolent men who hasten to the succor of their suffering fellow-beings. I can imagine that it was with some such inspiring feelings that relief was borne to Livingstone in Africa and to Greely in the Arctic Circle. To the good man it is always a pleasure to do an act of magnanimity, and the fact that my considerate regard for our lawn involved no danger or privation did not serve in the least to abate my satisfaction in the performance of my task.

While I was thus engaged I observed a stranger coming up the lawn toward me. I bade him a very good morning, but he seemed disinclined to exchange civilities with me. He was a low-browed, roughish-looking fellow, and I conceived an immediate dislike for him.

"You 'll have to give me your name," said he, very gruffly.

"For what purpose?" I asked, for his tone and manner nettled me.

"I 'm a detective," said he, exhibiting a silver star on his vest front, "and I 'm on the trail of you ducks that sprinkle your lawns after legal hours. Oh, I 'm onto your racket."

"Sir," said I, indignantly, "I have made no racket. I am a quiet, law-abiding citizen, and this is my own lawn to do with as I please."

"Come, now," said he, insolently, "don't give me any funny business. You 're sprinklin' after hours and I 'm going to report you to police headquarters. There 's no use of kickin', so you 'd better give me your name an' save trouble."

"Sir," I cried, "Reuben Baker is not a name to be ashamed of, and if you think that by any of your underhand hocus pocus you can trespass on my premises and prevent my caring for my own property you are grandly mistaken."

"You 'll sing a different song to-morrer," said the fellow, and I am sure I heard him chuckling to himself as he walked away.

Later in the day I learned from neighbor Baylor that I had indeed transgressed the law by operating the lawn hose at ten o'clock in the morning. It seems that there is an ordinance imposing a fine upon all who sprinkle their lawns between eight o'clock in the morning and five o'clock in the afternoon.

I declared in very vigorous English that I would never submit to any such outrage, and my indignation touched the boiling point when, still later in the day, a policeman came to my house and handed me a document apprising me that I must give a good and sufficient bond for my appearance the next morning before his honor, Justice Fatty, to answer to the charge of having maliciously, etc., defied, disobeyed and broken the ordinance, etc. I went at once to seek the counsel of Lawyer Miles, for whose legal acumen and forensic eloquence I had harbored the profoundest veneration ever since I had heard his prosecution of a man named Tackleton for causing the death of neighbor Baylor's pet dog. I recall that on that occasion there was not a dry eye in the court and that even the defendant himself wept copiously; whereupon the presiding justice, fearing that he might be unduly influenced by the emotion of the auditors, ordered the constable to clear the room of everybody not a party to the cause. At this supreme moment Lawyer Miles, with streaming eyes and amid choking sobs, cried out: "Mercy, your honor; in the name of the tenderest and holiest of human considerations I appeal for mercy! Turn out the men-folks if you will, but spare, oh, spare the women and children."

Ever since this memorable occasion I have regarded Lawyer Miles as the foremost of living jurists, and it was the most natural thing in the world that I should determine to confide to him any legal business of mine that might arise—in which determination I was confirmed by a suspicion that Lawyer Miles never charged his neighbors any fee for his professional services.

I was not a little surprised when, having heard my story, Lawyer Miles counselled me to plead guilty to the charge and to pay the regulation fine, which together with the costs (so called), amounted to seven dollars and fifty cents. It was in vain that I represented to Lawyer Miles the outrage of punishing a man for seeking to beautify his premises, and thereby to contribute to the comfort and delectation of the public generally. Lawyer Miles took the narrow view that the ordinance had been violated, and that, therefore, the fine should be paid. "The ordinance may be an unwise one," said he. "In that event we should elect a city council that will repeal it. But so long as the law exists it should be enforced."

The advice of Lawyer Miles, coupled with the tears of Alice, finally prevailed. Alice fancied that I was in danger of being committed to prison, and she hysterically represented to me the horror of the ignominy which would ever thereafter attach to our family name. In one breath she proposed to send post haste for our pastor, the Rev. Dr. Sungaulus, in the hope that by means of his spiritual ministrations I might be dissuaded from further defiance of the law; in the next breath she conjured me by every regard I had for the future of our children—Galileo, Herschel, Fanny, Erasmus, and Josephine—to listen to the Voice of Reason. At the mention of Josephine's name I weakened, for, as I have already intimated to you, the innocent babe has acquired a powerful hold upon the tendrils of my heart. In an instant my anger departed.

"It shall be as you say, Alice: I will pay the fine and costs. But from this moment I consecrate my life to the election of councilmen from the Twenty-fifth Ward who will repeal that odious ordinance and make it legal for property-owners to sprinkle their lawns when and how they please."

In looking back over the short period of the history of "our house" I find no other incident so disagreeable as this one which I have just narrated. Even at this remote date I cannot refer to it without feeling my gorge rise. By nature I am peaceful, and I am exceeding slow to wrath. But anything that savors of injustice exasperates me to the degree of frenzy. I am still fixed in my determination to secure the repeal of the ordinance which robbed me of seven dollars and fifty cents and is jeoparding the lives of my lilac bushes, my peonies, my twin cherry-trees (George and Martha), and my grass. I intend to see that the matter is brought up at the next quarterly meeting of the Buena Park Benevolent and Protective Citizens' Association, and you can depend upon it that when that association speaks its tones are heard around the world and go thundering down the ages.

This affair of mine with the odious ordinance was duly reported in the daily newspapers through the delectable medium of the column headed "Minor Criminal Items." It did not conduce to my equanimity to see my name catalogued with persons arrested for sneak thievery, pocket-picking, drunkenness, brawling, and mayhem. I never before suspected that my friends made a practice of perusing the criminal calendar, but after the appearance of that disagreeable item in print I began to get letters from old acquaintances condoling with me and asking whether they could be of any service to me in my trouble. Some of these letters must have been dispatched in a spirit of humor, but I see nothing mirthfull in the association of an honest man's name with crime, and the people who have sought to poke fun at me in this unpleasant affair need not be at all surprised if I do not bow to them the next time we meet.

Another class of people I have no sympathy with are those who do not recognize in our purchase of a home a cause for general joy and congratulation. You may not believe it, but it is nevertheless a fact that within the last two months I have met people and apprised them of our purchase and they have never so much as expressed even the least bit of delight. My old friend Slashon Tomsing, who makes considerable pretense to being interested in the public welfare—why, when I met him at the Civic Federation rooms not long ago and began to tell him of our new home, instead of being swept away (as it were) upon a tidal wave of rapture, he immediately changed the theme of conversation and asked my opinion of bimetallism. I gave him to understand very distinctly that the public was in very poor business if it suffered itself to become interested in bimetallism or in any other ism so long as it had an opportunity to discuss "our new house" as a living, absorbing, and burning theme.

Another friend, my old and particularly valued friend, Professor Sniff, curator of Mahon's Museum of Marvels—but I'll let that affair pass; for Professor Sniff certainly did not intend to wound my feelings by his apparent indifference; moreover, he has promised to send me for my private collection all the duplicates that occur in section E of his museum, which section is devoted exclusively to dried centipedes, tarantulas, and beetles and to Mexican lizards in bottles of alcohol.

All who have ever engaged in the enterprise of a new house will agree with me when I say that nothing else wounds one more deeply than the indifference of the rest of humanity to what is nearest and dearest to his heart. When I walk the street nowadays I actually pity the crowds of people I see, because, forsooth, they know nothing of the great joy I have acquired in that blessed house. Alice made me take her to hear a Mme. Melba in Italian opera last month at the Auditorium. As we came away Alice asked: "Was n't it grand?"

"Yes," I answered, "and yet amid it all I was oppressed by a feeling of sadness. For, of all the six thousand souls in that splendid building, only you and I, dear Alice, were aware that the old Schmittheimer place had passed into the possession of the two happiest people on earth."



XV

THE QUESTION OF INSURANCE

My neighbor, Mr. Teddy, called on me one morning as I sat under a willow tree watching the tinner at work on the roof and wondering whether it was really as nice and warm on a tin roof under an unobscured sun as it seemed to be.

"Do you know," said Mr. Teddy, cordially, "this is the first time I have ever visited this place. Frequently in my walks of an evening I have passed here, and, in common with others, I have admired the graceful slope of the lawn, the stately dignity of the trees, and the bright colors of the flowers that here and there dot the verdant expanse. Surely in the possession of this charming estate you are, my dear friend, one of the most fortunate of mortals. Your life amid these picturesque environments, in this sequestered spot, far from the din and turmoil of the urban throng, will be in every respect ideal—a dream, sir, a poetic dream."

You will perhaps understand by this time that I regard Mr. Teddy as an exceptionally worthy and pleasant gentleman.

"And," continued Mr. Teddy, "it would be cruel if your studious researches in this academic grove were by any chance to be interrupted by any harassing business care. The serpent of worldly solicitude, sir, should never be suffered to enter this veritable Eden."

"You are right, my good friend and neighbor," said I, "but how can I prevent the intrusion of care, since, alas! I am merely human?"

"It behooves you to make provision against every contingency," answered Mr. Teddy. "Do I understand that you carry insurance upon this residence?"

"Insurance? Why, no, I think not," said I. "Insurance is a matter I never thought of."

"Is it possible," cried Mr. Teddy, "that you have neglected to provide against that serious loss which would accrue if a careless workman were to drop a lighted match in yonder pile of shavings? Think for one moment, sir, of the ruin that would confront you if this magnificent but uninsured architectural pile were to be swept away by the pale hand of the remorseless fire fiend! I beg of you to provide yourself with the means of redress ere you are overtaken by the bitter pill of adversity. Mr. Baker, your beautiful home should be insured at once!"

It then occurred to me for the first time that neighbor Teddy was the general western agent of the Royal Liliuokalani Fire, Marine and Accident Insurance Company of Hawaii. I have often wondered why a man when he embarks in the insurance business invariably attaches himself to a concern located in some far distant clime, and now that I am thinking of it, I will add that I have often wondered why the efficacy of patent medicines is so often testified to by the affidavits of people with strange names who reside in queer streets in obscure hamlets hundreds of miles distant from the place of publication.

"It would be wise of you," said Mr. Teddy, "to let me write you out a policy immediately. It is always prudent to take time by the forelock. Our rates are low, and, as you doubtless are aware, our company is the most prosperous in the world. We were awarded a medal at the World's Fair.

"I know absolutely nothing about these things," said I, candidly, "but I suppose we ought to have the place insured. I should be glad to have you drop around some evening and talk the matter over with Alice and me."

To this suggestion Mr. Teddy took very kindly and he promised to call very soon. As he retired down the gravel walk Colonel Bobbett Doller came up the same. The two gentlemen saluted each other very coldly.

"Colonel Doller is coming to talk to me about that twenty-five foot strip of land," says I to myself; but I was in error.

"Ah, good morning, neighbor Baker, good morning!" cried Colonel Doller, cheerily. "Beautiful weather we 're having—too dry, though, much too dry! All nature is parched. We need rain badly; otherwise the most lamentable consequences will follow. I dare say you have noticed by the paper how alarmingly prevalent conflagrations have become?"

"Have they?" I asked, in genuine surprise.

"Shockingly so," answered Colonel Doller. "The record is simply appalling. If this thing continues a lot of the little mushroom insurance companies will fail; it 's an ill wind that blows nobody good. The public will presently awaken to a realization of the danger of patronizing the irresponsible concerns which are trying to do business under the shadow of the old and reliable companies."

"Do you really think there will be a panic?" I asked.

"Among the small fry, yes," answered Colonel Doller; "but nothing short of a universal cataclysm will feaze to the slightest degree the Vesuvius Assurance Company (limited) of Piddleton, England, the oldest and staunchest insurance company in the world, of which I am, as perhaps you know, the general manager for the western hemisphere."

"We—and when I say we," continued Colonel Doller, "I mean the Vesuvius—we have a cash capital of eighteen million pounds, and a reserve fund of twelve million five hundred and sixty-eight thousand two hundred pounds, three shillings, and six pence. Our losses last year were six million three hundred thousand pounds in round numbers, and our premiums were eight million five hundred and sixty-three thousand two hundred and sixty-five pounds and eighteen pence. So you can see for yourself (for figures do not lie) that the Vesuvius is as solid as the everlasting hills."

"The Royal Liliuokalani is a pretty good company, is n't it?" says I.

"The Royal Liliuokalani?" repeated Colonel Doller. "The Royal Liliuokalani? Let me see—I don't know that I ever heard of it. It's a Milwaukee concern, is n't it?"

"No," said I, "my understanding is that it is a Hawaiian enterprise."

"Possibly so—very likely it is," said Colonel Doller, indifferently. "There are so many of these little schemes springing up nowadays that I do not pretend to keep track of them. If, however, you should at any time contemplate insuring you will, of course, come to the Vesuvius."

I repeated to Colonel Doller what I had told Mr. Teddy about the feasibility of consulting Alice. Colonel Doller replied that while the Vesuvius was entirely too big and too conservative a company ever to skirmish for business, he would, purely out of regard for his long friendship for me, call that evening to have a business talk with Alice and me.

Later in the day I had a visit from Frederick Jeems, another neighbor engaged in the profession of fire insurance. He began his attack adroitly by complimenting my new house and by regretting that I was shingling the roof.

"But so long as you 're insured," said he, carelessly, "I don't know that it makes any difference whether you use shingles or slate."

I confessed that I had not taken out any insurance, and this gave him the desired opportunity to bring up his batteries of eloquence, of argument, of statistics, and of figures. Before he was done he had overwhelmed the Royal Liliuokalani of Hawaii and the Vesuvius of Piddleton with a genuine avalanche of scorn and derision, and had quite convinced me that the only solvent and secure insurance concern in the world was the Deutsche Kaiser of Bomberg-am-Rhine. In an inspired moment I bade Mr. Jeems come round that very evening to present his facts and figures to Alice, and I laughed slyly to myself as I pictured the meeting between himself, Mr. Teddy, and Colonel Doller. This may strike you as having been malicious, but I claim that under the circumstances I was warranted in planning this practical joke.

Having disposed of these three gentlemen, I flattered myself that I was temporarily done with the vexatious details of insurance, and I was getting ready to bank up one of the flowerbeds with black dirt when who should come along but another neighbor, and a very charming one, too—Angus Cameron Macleod? For two years we have been more or less intimate. Macleod combines many strangely diverse accomplishments. He executes the sword dance with singular grace, and he recites Robert Burns' poems and passages from "Marmion" by the yard, and with inspiring animation. Although I am in no sense a music critic, nor even a connoisseur, I will confess that I have often been actually transported with delight by neighbor Macleod's rendition of "The Campbells Are Coming" on the bagpipes. At the same time he is a skilful rhetorician and severe logician, as all who have heard his defence of Presbyterianism will testify, and I will concede that I never heard anything more absorbingly fascinating than his exposition of the honest and ennobling old doctrine of infant damnation. If you knew Macleod you 'd agree with me that he is a man of parts.

"Now that your house is pretty nearly done," said Macleod, "you ought to take out some insurance in our company, the Bonny Thistle Marine of Inverness."

"But gracious me!" I cried in astonishment. "Why should I take out any marine insurance on a house?"

"For the very best reason in the world," answered Mr. Macleod. "Your house stands within two hundred yards of one of the fiercest inland seas of the world. Even now you can hear the tempestuous billows dashing wildly upon yonder treacherous sands, and you can see the surf madly reaching out as if to overwhelm this fair spot with its fatal fury. At any time a tidal wave is likely to sweep in from the frowning shores of Michigan. Fancy for one moment what would become of this beautiful but delicate fabric if that mighty lake were to burst its confines and surge in one vast wall in this direction! Has not the immortal Scott truly said:

"Against the wrath of nature how vain the works of man?

"My dear Baker, you certainly are too sensible a man to be blind to the security which is held out to you in this supreme moment of peril by the Bonny Thistle Marine of Inverness."

I admit that I knew not what to say. I had never before suspected any of these dangers which, according to my friends, now seemed imminent. On the one hand our cherished new house was threatened by fire; on the other hand that same dear edifice seemed to be doomed to a watery grave. Under these conflicting threatenings what was an inexperienced man to do? Heaven be praised, my presence of mind did not desert me. I referred Mr. Macleod to Alice, as I had referred the others. It was her house, and she would have to be responsible for it against the devouring elements.

That night I dreamed that the awful suggestions of Messrs. Teddy, Jeems, Doller, and Macleod had been realized. I dreamed that the new house was confronted upon one side by a wall of flame, and upon the other by a wall of water. Destruction and death seemed imminent. I dreamed that, trusting rather the mercy of the waves than the ferocity of the flames, I leaped into the billows and struggled like a Titan with them. I awoke, screaming with affright.



XVI

NEIGHBOR ROBBINS' PLATYPUS

I wish you knew Burr Robbins. It is quite likely, however, that you do know him, for he has been conspicuously before the public for a number of years. Mr. Robbins lives just across the way from the old Schmittheimer place, and he has surrounded himself with comforts and luxuries of a most extraordinary character. He is a retired circus proprietor, and he has taken with him into retirement many of the most startling features of the menagerie which used to figure as one of the most delectable component parts of the "absolutely greatest agglomeration of marvels exhibiting under one canvas."

In his front yard Mr. Robbins pastures two trained buffalo, a sacred cow, a gnu (or horned horse), two musk deer, a giraffe, a woolly horse, a five-legged calf and a moose. In the back yard there are two white bear cubs, a baby elephant, a nest of pythons, half a dozen ostriches, a learned pig, several alligators and crocodiles, and a giant sloth from South America. The stable is well stocked with monkeys, parrots, eagles, lizards, tortoises and other curiosities, and in the watering trough are a sea serpent and a mermaid (said to be the only specimens of these marvels in a domesticated state).

Alice expressed some anxiety at first that the proximity of the strange creatures might prove unpleasant to us, and she strictly forbade little Erasmus associating with the pythons or pulling the crocodiles' tails. Mr. Robbins has assured us, however, that his pets are docile and trustworthy, and it is his custom to invite the little children of the neighborhood to visit and play with the most tractable of them.

I got acquainted with neighbor Robbins in a rather curious manner. His platypus escaped from its cage in the stable and sought refuge in our front yard. I discovered that it had made a nest in one of our lilac bushes and had laid an egg in it. With eggs at twenty cents a dozen and our family fond of custard, an industrious platypus is by no means an unwelcome visitor. When Mr. Robbins came looking for his vagrant pet I suggested that a flock of platypuses would be a decided improvement upon the poultry with which the average farmer stocks his farm. I was considerably surprised to learn from Mr. Robbins that the market price of platypuses is eight hundred dollars apiece, and I at once foresaw that this strange creature was not likely to become the dreaded competitor of the hen in the midst of us.

Erasmus and little Josephine became deeply interested in Mr. Robbins, and they are now spending a large share of their time in the society either of that fascinating gentleman or of his equally fascinating wild beasts. Erasmus has learned to throw a back-somersault with surprising ease and grace and to sing a comic song with electrical effect. These accomplishments he has acquired under the careful tutelage of Rufe Botts, formerly known to fame as Professor Botts, manager of the Nonpareil Congress of Trained Dogs and Trick Ponies. I understand that he also served Mr. Robbins in "the palmy days" as a clown in the ring during the regular performance and as a serio-comic vocalist at the concert immediately after the show under the great canvas. Relentless time, however, rings in wondrous changes, and the whilom Professor Rufus Botts, pride alike of the amphitheatre and of the concert stage, is now plain Rufe Botts on a salary of four dollars a week (and found) as Mr. Robbins' man of all work.

Alice and I have feared that Rufe's influence might not be beneficial to the children. It pains us to observe that Josephine has learned to ride a padded horse and to leap with surprising certainty through a hoop and over a banner. Erasmus does not disguise his intention of joining a circus when he reaches the age of maturity, and I happened to overhear Rufe remark the other day that our daughter Fanny, with just a leetle more practice, would make a ne plus ultra snake-charmer and knife-thrower. Mr. Robbins has laughed at our solicitude; he tells us that these are the vagarious fancies and exuberant whims of youth and that they will duly die out. This is really very consoling to me, for I can conceive of nothing else more humiliating than the spectacle of our beloved Josephine flaunting around a circus ring upon the back of a fat horse and attired in shockingly scanty raiment. It would break his mother's heart if Erasmus were to diverge from that course in theology which she has mapped out and were to embark in the picturesque profession of turning somersaults in public. Our family reputation would surely be irreparably damaged if our Fanny were to be beguiled into the fascinating but hazardous arts of a snake-charmer and a knife-thrower! Heaven send that our fears be dissipated by future events!

And yet, full of temptations and of misery as I believe the career of a circus performer to be, I am entertained and instructed by neighbor Robbins' recital of his exploits and experiences, and I am deeply stirred by his narrative of the adventures he had in the capture of those same wild beasts which now embellish his expansive estate in Clarendon Avenue. Indeed, a peculiar interest is now attached by me to each particular beast, for I have heard Mr. Robbins tell how in their native jungles or on their native pampas or in their native lagoons or among their native rocky fastnesses he sought and found and comprehended the lemurs, the bisons, the alligators, the rackaboars, and the other marvels of zooelogy.

It is very pleasant, I can assure you, to listen to tales of adventure while one is engaged at the somewhat prosaic task of trimming a lilac bush or of weeding the pansy bed. Whenever he discovers me at this kind of toil neighbor Robbins comes over and leans up against a tree and beguiles the tedium of labor with a bit of personal experience. I can't begin to tell you how attached I have already become to Mr. Robbins. I have already made up my mind that when his own front lawn gets pretty well cleaned out I shall ask neighbor Robbins to pasture his sacred cow, horned horse, and five-legged calf in our front yard for a spell.

I shall never forget the shock I had one afternoon while Mr. Robbins and I were visiting on our front lawn. I had been pruning one of the poplars and Mr. Robbins was telling me of the difficulty Professor Rufus Botts and he had once had trying to teach the wild man of Borneo to eat olives and anchovy paste. Suddenly I saw a strange object pass up the street on a bicycle. I had never seen the like before. My acquaintance with Burr Robbins' menagerie had made me familiar with most of the curious forms of animal life, but never before had I seen so remarkable an object as I beheld upon that bicycle.

"Look there! Look quick!" said I to neighbor Robbins. "It is going up the street and it has wheels under it!"

"Where?" asked Mr. Robbins; "I don't see anything."

"Yes, you do," said I; "I mean the queer thing on the bicycle—can it be one of your trained animals that has got away?"

"Bless your soul, man," answered Mr. Robbins, "that's not an animal! That's a woman!"

"Oh, no, it is n't," said I. "No woman ever dressed like that."

"No woman ever dressed like that?" echoed Mr. Robbins, with a mocking laugh; "why, neighbor Baker, where have you been hiding so long that you 're so behind the times?"

"I 've not been hiding at all," said I, indignantly. "I 've been living in Evanston Avenue, and a very worthy locality it is, too!"

"And do you mean to tell me," asked Mr. Robbins, "that women don't ride the bicycle in Evanston Avenue?"

"Of course they do," said I, "but they don't look like that! The women that ride in Evanston Avenue wear dresses, the same as other women wear. This strange object (which you declare is a woman) wears pants!"

"Those ain't pants," said Mr. Robbins; "those are bloomers."

"I don't care what you call them," said I, "they 're pants just the same, and, what is more, very ill-fitting pants at that!"

"That," said Mr. Robbins, "is the new style of bicycle attire for the feminine sex. Shocking as it may appear to you, it is much more ample than the costume which I found to be popular among the female bicyclists of France during my visit to that country last summer."

"But you don't mean to tell me," said I, "that women make a practice of riding up and down Clarendon Avenue in pants!"

"Certainly, I do," said Mr. Robbins. "We do things in style over this way. Evanston Avenue is a century behind the times. Oh, you 'll learn a lot of things when you get moved over here into your new house."

"But I 'll not stand it!" I cried. "I 'll inform the police and I 'll have the law on these brazen creatures. What would Alice say! And what would become of Fanny and of little Josephine if they were brought up under the demoralizing influences of spectacles like that! Do you suppose I 'm going to have Galileo and Herschel corrupted? And little Erasmus—shall his pure, innocent mind be contaminated? Never, neighbor Robbins, never!"

But Mr. Robbins did not seem to view the matter at all as I did. It was evident that his long connection with the circus had calloused the sensibility of his perceptive faculties. He was inclined to jeer at what he termed my prudishness. I was glad to be back in Evanston Avenue once more, secure in an atmosphere of propriety. It was several hours, however, before I could get my mind away from thoughts of that woman in pants, so profoundly had her appearance in that strangely abbreviated costume shocked me.



XVII

OUR DEVICES FOR ECONOMIZING

Unless you want to render yourself liable to an attack of nervous prostration you should never watch a skilful workman nailing on lath. It is the most bewildering spectacle you can conceive of. I watched it for twenty minutes one day—it was when they were lathing the big front room downstairs, the library, and my brain began to reel as if I were intoxicated. I actually believe that if Uncle Si had not led me away and set me down under one of the willow-trees in the front yard I should have had a spell of sickness, and may be even now had been confined in the incurable ward of a lunatic asylum. I can't understand how they do it so accurately and so fast and with such apparent ease. The whole proceeding is so fascinating that I really believe that, next to proficiency in the science of astronomy, I should like to be an expert at nailing lath. In every line of mechanics my education has been grievously neglected.

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